Finding Nemo

9 Favorite Animated Film Scores

I have a dear friend in Austin who refuses to see animated films. I’ve tried for nearly 25 years to convince him of their worth but he refuses to pay money to go see a “cartoon.” We don’t even discuss it anymore. I think he’s a fool and I’m sure he thinks the same about me.

But I love animated films. Why? Stunning artwork, great stories, the often stellar vocal work, but most importantly, the music. The classic set of orchestrations and sound that animation requires catapults me right back to childhood. While watching an animated film, I can let go of my jaded cynicism and become a kid again. And, for me, it’s the music that does it. My recent enjoyment of THE LEGEND OF SILKBOY prompted me to devote this month’s “9 on the 9th” post to this special genre of film music.

Trust me, combing through over 70 years of animated films was tough. I laid myself two ground rules for this list. 1) They had to be feature films. So, rightly or wrongly, I had to leave out classics like Albert Hague’s immortal HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS and Vince Guaraldi’s A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, as well as Julian Nott’s fantastic work on the WALLACE & GROMIT shorts, especially his pitch-perfect pastiche of Rachmaninoff in A CLOSE SHAVE. And 2) if it’s an animated musical, the songs count as well, which is why Elton John and Tim Rice’s supbar efforts killed Hans Zimmer’s THE LION KING and Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s lousy songs for MULAN kept Jerry Goldsmith’s stunning score from being on the list.

To pare down the list was heartbreaking. While I tried to be subjective and keep the haze of memory out of it, it still affected the list somewhat. But I guess that’s why the word “favorite” in the post title is there in the first place. While it’s too early to tell if recent animated favorites like HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON will have staying power (I bet it will), here are nine animated scores that will draw you in.


While not top-tier Disney, half of the joy of THE ARISTOCATS is watching how the Disney animators convert the jazz music of George Bruns‘ infectious score into their animation. The songs by the Sherman Brothers, Terry Gilkinson et al define early ’70s Disney fun. The studio was still in transition following the death of Uncle Walt a few years earlier and, as such, the film is missing some of the sparkle of earlier and later Disney efforts. But it’s hard to resist songs like “Everybody Wants To Be a Cat” and the Gallic and jazz inflections of Bruns’ music, with the sly feline portamenti in the strings.


For those of us who had stopped going to see animated films because of subpar Disney efforts like OLIVER & CO., THE LITTLE MERMAID was a revelation and a return to that Disney magic that had been missing from the studio (and animated films in general) for so long. Alan Menken and especially lyricist Howard Ashman revitalized a moribund genre and gave it a classic Broadway musical formula that defined animated films for a decade. MERMAID was Menken’s first background score and he was still learning the ropes. If it’s missing some of the sophistication of his later scores, it’s still a worthy first effort, supported by a handful of marvelous songs, especially the moving “Part of Your World.”

7. DUMBO (1941)

I have a very special place in my heart for this Disney classic. A good shrink could probably read a lot into my connection with Dumbo’s outsider status and his relationship with his mother. For years I identified with the pachyderm’s big ears and shyness. But forgetting all those foolish psychological trappings, Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace‘s Oscar-winning big-top score is a melodic delight. Add in the calliope oom-pah-pah‘s of Edward Plumb‘s sparkling orchestrations and Ned Washington’s sweet and witty lyrics and you’ve got a three-ring winner. I love the honest emotion of “Baby Mine,” the drug-induced fright of “Pink Elephants on Parade” and the jazzy riffs of “When I See An Elephant Fly.” I don’t understand the appeal of circuses, but the appeal of this charming score never dims.

6. PINOCCHIO (1940)

I cannot tell a lie. I tear up every time I hear “When You Wish Upon a Star.” That melody is so ingrained in my psyche that it’s a direct route to the innocence of childhood. While I find PINOCCHIO to be a little slow-going as a film, the music shows the early Disney style at its finest. From the pizzicato strings and staccato woodwinds of “Little Wooden Head” to the shimmering magic of “The Blue Fairy,” Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith‘s score is a beauty. Classic songs like “Give a Little Whistle” and “I’ve Got No Strings” add to the perennial appeal of this Oscar-winner.

5. CHICKEN RUN (2000)

I’m a big fan of the WALLACE & GROMIT shorts and Aardman Animation in general. While CHICKEN RUN doesn’t quite match the sheer visual wit of the best of the W&G series, it’s still an entertaining film, thanks in no small part to the score by Harry Gregson-Williams and John Powell. With more than a slight nod to THE GREAT ESCAPE, Gregson-Williams and Powell score the film with humor, energy and musical chutzpah. With an infectious main theme and the brilliant use of kazoos, this one is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. I’ve yet to meet a film music fan who doesn’t like this score.


I’m not a fan of Japanese anime. And watching American dubbed versions of it is almost as bad as watching dubbed live-action foreign films. But by ignoring the genre, it took me years before I discovered the pleasures of Joe Hisaishi‘s music. Sweeping and melodic, Hisaishi’s anime scores are far from what I expected. Even with stories firmly planted in Asian soil, Hisaishi’s music is written and scored in a classical Hollywood tradition. The whirling “merry-go-round of life” waltz from HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE swept me into the world of this great composer and I’ve never looked back.

UP soundtrack

3. UP (2009)

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know of my love for UP and Michael Giacchino‘s score. The music hit me emotionally right in the gut from the very first listen. Giacchino’s music is sweet, charming, thrilling and moving in the most unlikely of places. As much as I admired THE INCREDIBLES and loved RATATOUILLE, UP made me a Giacchino fan. I literally got tears in my eyes when he walked onstage to accept his very worthy Oscar. In the last 12 months, the score has only risen in my estimation.

2. FINDING NEMO (2003)

If you read my 9 Favorite Scores of Thomas Newman post, then the inclusion of FINDING NEMO will come as no surprise. Newman’s masterful score was a welcome break from the more pedestrian scoring stylings of Randy Newman’s earlier Pixar efforts. His exotic orchestrations were not what I was expecting and it took me many listens to accept his sonic world for an animated score. Like a lot of Newman’s work, priceless musical moments fly by in the space of a few bars. Yet Newman never loses sight of the characters, emotion and overall arc of the story. The film has one of the gentlest, most satisfying endings of any animated score I’ve ever heard. Even today, the music unearths fresh new musical gems the deeper I dive into the score.


For me, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is the pinnacle of Disney animation—the perfect combination of story, songs, and score. The sadness surrounding Howard Ashman‘s death of AIDS prior to the film’s release lends Alan Menken‘s gorgeous melodies added weight and poignancy. But I think the score shows off Menken’s underrated scoring abilities to its fullest, and his innate talent sets this particular score above the rest. Containing arguably the finest set of songs of any animated film, Menken weaves those priceless melodies through his delightful background score. Only the most rigorous Menken basher would deny the worthiness of this fantastic Oscar-winning score.

  1. Great article Jim! I must say I really enjoyed listening to all of these :)

    I remember going to watch “The Aristocats” at the cinema as a child, sadly I forgot how good the score was!

    1. It’s always nice to relive those childhood memories, isn’t it? Unfortunately, the U.S. release of the score is woefully inadequate. Had to find an import version to get the full score. Glad I did too!

  2. I was about to give you a thrashing for leaving out “Mulan” (which is my favourite animated score of all time), but then I read your reasoning for doing so. Your life is no longer in danger. :D

    1. Whew! I’m sure you could kick my ass with ease! I do like Goldsmith’s work on the score though. But, jeez, those songs are wretched.

  3. Oy … good thing I didn’t read this list before I was in nose-punching range this weekend! ;-) In seriousness, I would append 9 more, in no particular order: BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM (Walker), WATERSHIP DOWN (Morley), THE SECRET OF NIMH (Goldsmith), THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (Elfman), THE BLACK CAULDRON (Bernstein), THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER (Broughton), THE LAST UNICORN (Webb/America), METROPOLIS (Honda), YELLOW SUBMARINE (Martin). There are more. OH, there are more…

    1. Between the potential nose-punching and that shot of you and I that Jill took at dinner, I think I escaped this weekend relatively unscathed. :) Outside of WATERSHIP DOWN (which I find pleasant) and YELLOW SUBMARINE (which I totally forgot about), it’s a list full of scores to discover for me. So thanks for the recommendations.

      1. Hey, my pleasure. :-) If you take my advice on anything, though, grab La-La Land’s expanded BATMAN: MASK OF THE PHANTASM while it’s still in-print! If you dig back a ways, you can read my analysis in that magazine you edit.

  4. 1. Howl’s Moving Castle
    2. The Nightmare Before Christmas
    3. Pinocchio
    4. Peter Pan
    5. The Triplets of Belleville
    6. The Little Mermaid
    7. The Incredibles
    8. Chicken Run
    9. Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas

    1. I don’t know SINBAD and I can’t stand NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (he types as ducks the slings and arrows that are thrown his way), but I certainly won’t complain about the rest of that list. I need to go back and listen to TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE again. Haven’t heard it since the film came out.

  5. A most interesting list, Jim. I’ll try very hard to stomach your derogatory remarks about my favorite Disney film and score that features some phenomenal Elton John tunes…

    (On the subject of Pinocchio, I love the little throwaway motif in the track “Deep Ripples.”)

    It is incredible how many fantastic scores have been born out of animated efforts. While a lot of animated film scores suffer from hyperkinetic mickey-mousing, just as many excel in the special role music gets to play against drawn images.

    I would name these scores in my list of favorites:

    The Lion King. One of Zimmer’s finest scores, packed with grown-up emotional punch, is complemented by wonderfully catchy, memorable songs by my favorite songwriter of all time. (To each his own, eh?)
    Mulan. The songs aren’t all that special to me, but neither do they detract from Goldsmith’s stellar score. Goldsmith’s gorgeous themes mix smoothly with his instrumental interpretations of the song melodies, and the result is a marvelous late entry into his unmatched oeuvre.
    The Secret of Nimh. Another powerhouse score by Goldsmith filled with some of his most beautiful themes. The highlight for me is the majestic central track, “The House Raising.” The fact that animated films like this and Mulan seemed to bring out the best in Jerry has always made me sad that John Williams never tried his hand at the genre.
    The Land Before Time. Ignoring the influence of his classical forerunners on some of the music, Horner delivered what is, in my opinion, his finest score for this charming children’s film. The motifs and themes are woven into a flowing, patient tapestry that is emotionally rich and bittersweet.
    How to Train Your Dragon. I don’t have to tell you why this score is so good. I think it will stand the test of time, and it’s the most played animated film score for me in many, many years.

    (It’s funny to know we were breathing the same New York air when you penned this post.)

    1. First, I don’t think you “breathe” New York City air. At least not if you know what’s good for you. :) But, yes, the proximity is more than a little freaky.

      I’d put DRAGON in my list too if it wasn’t still so new, which obviously was my own rule. I don’t think I’ve ever heard NIMH (yes, shoot me) or LAND BEFORE TIME, so I’ll definitely check those out.

      I totally agree with you about Zimmer’s contributions to LION KING. I’m going to leave any more comments about Elton John and Tim Rice alone. They’ll come out with far more vitriol than I probably intend.

  6. Some eclectic recommendations not already mentioned:
    1. George Duning – 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS
    2. Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg – GAY PURR-EE
    3. Jules Styne and Bob Merrill – MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL
    4. Harry Nilsson – THE POINT
    5. Chico Hamilton – COON SKIN
    6. Elmer Bernstein – HEAVY METAL
    7. Leonard Rosenman – Bakshi’s LORD OF THE RINGS
    8. William Kraft – FIRE AND ICE
    9. Alan Silvestri – BEOWULF

  7. excellent article. its a shame you dont like the songs to The Lion King… I wouldve added Hunchback of Notre Dame to that list but the songs are garbage. the score though, is Menken’s best if you ask me

    1. I actually don’t like the film of THE LION KING either. Beautiful animation with the merest wisp of a story. It’s even worse in its stage incarnation where that slim story is padded out to 2-1/2 hours, phenomenal stagecraft aside. But I can separate the music from my dislike of the film. I think Zimmer’s work is great. The others? Not so much.

      I also think HUNCHBACK is arguably Menken’s most complex and mature score. I agree that the songs aren’t great (no doubt having to work with Stephen Schwartz, who was always better at music than lyrics), though I do like “Out There”.

      1. I hate to harp on the list this much, especially when I’m this late to the party (love the site, by the way), but, mob-baiting comments aside (you’re very good at them, you must have excellent security), I felt the need to defend Menken/Schwartz’s songs for Hunchback. Or at least the prologue and “Heaven’s Light/Hellfire.” Schwartz may be better at music than lyrics, but those songs really hit me.
        As for your criticisms of TLK–which is one of my favorite films, animated or otherwise, if not necessarily one of the very greatest–they’re mild enough that I’m willing to leave my pitchfork in the garage. :)

  8. Well, I don’t know THAT many animated film scores as most here seem to know. I’ll just list my favorites.

    1. Beauty And The Beast
    2. The Little Mermaid
    3. Pocahontas
    4. Hercules
    5. The Lion King
    6. Thumbelina
    7. How To Train Your Dragon
    8. The Hunchback Of Notre Dame
    9. Enchanted

    I haven’t heard Pinocchio and most of the oldies in ages, don’t really remember the music. Guess the ones I listed are the ones I grew up with, and yeah I like Menken.

    And yes I agree with you, Menken is extremely underrated at scoring. When you hear his music without the vocals, it’s pure magic. Also love the orchestration in his scores, but I think he is not responsible for that.

  9. One unique score for an animation is Alexandre Desplat’s score for Fantastic Mr Fox.

    I also thought the Alan Silvestri score for A Christmas Carol was genious in the way he blended all those famous christmas songs into one mixtap like score.

  10. Just listening to James Newton Howard’s sublime score for Dinosaur… Yep, you know it’s coming… another boring “why isn’t “Insert Score Here” on your list”? So Jim… Actually, I just want your opinion of it. What do you think? Was it in close getting into the top 9?

    1. I actually don’t know DINOSAUR at all. But this is the second recommendation I’ve received on it in less than a week, so I guess I’m going to have to give it a shot. :)

  11. I’m happy to see your admiration for the great Joe Hisaishi! I’ve loved his music ever since I first saw the Studio Ghibli films he’s scored for (huge fan of those as well). I was surprised, though, that you chose Howl’s Moving Castle–a great score, nonetheless–over Spirited Away.

  12. Hi Jim-thanks for this article, these are some great scores. I wonder if you could help me. I’m a final year music student looking into the musical language of Pixar films, and was wondering if you new of any jazzy scores prior to Pixar films? E.g. Aristocats, Jungle Book etc. As Pixar breaks the ‘Disney sound’ i many repects as it tends toward a more classical live-action Hollywood sound than the more musical style scores of Disney, but with jazz mixed in there to make it a little bit cheeky. If you had any thoughts it’d be much appreciated!

    1. Hi Megumi. I’m not as familiar with this topic as some other aspects of film music, but jazz has been incorporated in animation all the way back to the 1930s, especially in animated shorts. John and Faith Hubley mixed jazz and animation together beautifully, using legendary jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Quincy Jones, etc. to score their short films. Tom & Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Gerald McBoing Boing, you name it…Scott Bradley, Carl Stalling… they all contributed to jazz in film. Recent Oscar nominee Chico & Rita uses Cuban jazz. Maybe someone will chime in who has more knowledge about this topic than I do.

      1. Thanks so much! I looked into Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley and some earlier shorts, but have a massive gap from 30’s animations up to Pixar, where the style was mainly based on music from the stage, as Disney dominated those years in between and their films took on a more operetta/musical model, which Pixar hasn’t. I was just curious as to that middle period, if there was any development there, even in the non-animated film score. Again, many thanks!

  13. You left out The Land Before Time. It is one of the most moving scores of all time IMHO. Animation or otherwise. That wordless choral music when Littlefoot is looking for his mother who just died makes me cry every time. And I am a 42 year old man! And don’t get me started on the music when they find the Great Valley. WOW.

  14. Love animation scores. Here’s my top 9:

    1. Tarzan (David Newman)
    2. How To Train Your Dragon 2
    3. The Land Before Time
    4. We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story
    5. How To Train Your Dragon
    6. Ratatouille
    7. The Adventures Of Tintin
    8. Up
    9. Transformers: the Movie

  15. But what about Pocahontas?? “Colors of the Wind” is my favorite song with lyrics and you cannot deny that “Farewell” the last score is the most beautiful, especially at the end when it transitions into, you guessed it, Colors of the Wind. Wow, it must have taken you a really long time to get through all this music!

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